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Eco-Apple program expands into Eco-Fruit

A University of Wisconsin-Madison program that has helped Wisconsin apple growers reduce pesticide use without sacrificing fruit quality has a new name and a broader mission.

The project recently received a $125,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand into more apple growing regions and to set up a similar program for Wisconsin berry growers. Accordingly, the project that began in 2003 as the Eco-Apple project has been renamed the Eco-Fruit project.

“There are a lot of growers out there ready to take on something [like this]. They just need a little support to do it, and that”s what the project is there for,” says Michelle Miller, an outreach specialist at the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, who manages the project.

The three-year EPA Minor and Specialty Crops IPM Special Project grant will provide growers with crop management tools and know-how that will protect human health and the environment.

“EPA is proud of the example Wisconsin apple growers and the UW-Madison have set in reducing pesticide risk,” said Margaret Guerriero, EPA Region 5”s Waste Pesticides and Toxics Division Director. “The grant money will go a long way toward expanding a program to fruit growers throughout the state.”

Farmers who participate in Eco-Fruit agree to use integrated pest management, or IPM, instead of applying pesticides according to the calendar. They decide whether or not to spray based on data about pest levels, weather, the stage of growth of the plant or tree, and other factors.

Data collected during the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 growing seasons indicate that the program has made remarkable strides toward its goals.

“Managing with data makes all the difference. After two years working with growers in the field, we saw a 58 percent reduction, on average, in pesticide risk and a 13 percent improvement in use of IPM tools overall,” says Miller.

Results from the first phase of the project were based on data collected from approximately 400 acres of orchards managed by 15 different growers. Now in its second phase, the project has more than doubled; 37 apple growers participated in the 2006 growing season.

Miller has found that although trained coaches initially help growers implement the program”s IPM strategies, the growers quickly take over the process and advise each other through local groups, or networks. “Part of the reason the program has been as successful as it has is because the farmers take the lead,” says Miller. “They can”t say enough good things about the farmer networks.”

The new grant will fund new apple networks in the Chippewa Valley and Lake Superior regions, a new berry network in the Merrill area and allow for the continued support of established apple networks in Northeastern and Southeastern Wisconsin.

The grant also provides funding to augment the USDA”s Environmental Quality Incentives Program – which helps farmers adopt conservation practices – to better meet the needs of orchard growers. Since 2005, the project has worked with EQIP to direct funding toward IPM projects in orchards.

A long-term objective of the Eco-Fruit project is to help Wisconsin growers cope with changes in pesticide regulations. For instance, because of concerns about toxicity, the EPA is planning to take guthion, an older insecticide also known as azinphos-methyl or AZM, off the market in 2010. Imidan (also known as phosmet), which is often used as a substitute for the more toxic guthion, faces additional use restrictions. Restrictions on older, more toxic pesticides will likely follow.

“We want to prepare local growers for the day when they start losing some of these pesticide tools that they currently depend on. Locally-produced apples are important to our region”s economy and landscape, ” says Miller.

The project originated through the combined efforts of Dan Mahr, UW-Madison professor of entomology, Patty McManus, UW-Madison professor of plant pathology, Teryl Roper, UW-Madison professor of horticulture, Matt Stasiak, a researcher at the UW-Madison Peninsular Agricultural Research Station, John Aue, a private consultant, and growers from the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association.

In addition to the EPA, this program is supported in part by the USDA.